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The National Academy of Sciences this month released one of those reports that make for great plot devices in science fiction thrillers. It was titled: “Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions.”

And on the high-powered committee that wrote the report (which was actually an update of a 1997 report) was Mark Thiemens, the physical sciences dean at the University of California, San Diego. I caught up with Thiemens recently to talk about what will happen when science fiction becomes science fact, which he says is likely to happen sooner than later.

What are the big questions that the report addresses?

Well, if we go to Mars, scoop up a sample and come back to Earth, what should we do? Should we quarantine it? What if it is a disease, like in the “Andromeda Strain?” How do we know that there isn’t Martian life already on Earth? It was actually a very interesting exercise to find out what we do and don’t know.

This report is actually an update of a report done in 1997. What do we know now that we didn’t know then?

We didn’t know then the details about water being on Mars. As we’ve studied meteorites, we’ve learned that the organic compounds needed for life are pervasive beyond the earth. So you can’t argue against [life] based on the material not being there. The knowledge is much better than it was a decade ago.

So the general consensus is that there is life on Mars?

There is no consensus. But I have never heard anyone in the community say without a doubt there is not life on Mars. There is no evidence right now of life on Mars, but it is certainly not a far-fetched story that there was life on Mars at some point. Almost certainly from the geology we know there was almost certainly more water on Mars in the past, which would make it more favorable for life. To have life in the universe, you have to have water. So the planets with water are the most likely places to look for life. That is the smoking gun.

DAVID WASHBURN

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